Monday, 27 September 2010

Being a sceptic

I have often described myself as a sceptic. When I refer to myself in such a way, what exactly does that mean? What am I telling you about myself?

People often confuse scepticism with cynicism. A sceptic is not someone who is cynical, close-minded or rejects new ideas. In fact, the opposite is true.

A sceptic will apply reason to evaluate a claim, and will demand evidence before they accept something as being true. As long as there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that is being made, then this will satisfy the sceptic.

I can remember reading the book The Demon Haunted World by the late, great Carl Sagan. The book is described as follows:

"The book is intended to explain the scientific method to laypeople, and to encourage people to learn critical or sceptical thinking. It explains methods to help distinguish between ideas that are considered valid science, and ideas that can be considered pseudoscience. Sagan states that when new ideas are offered for consideration, they should be tested by means of sceptical thinking, and should stand up to rigorous questioning."

The scientific method is the embodiment of the process that is used by sceptics to determine if a claim is true. Without giving a fully detailed explanation of the scientific method, it is a process that requires the gathering of data to formulate and test a hypothesis. Using the scientific method, claims of truth can be verified in a controlled, repeatable and consistent manner.

Scepticism is therefore a process of applying reason and critical thinking to establish validity. It is the practice of finding supported conclusions, rather than the justification of preconceived beliefs.

A sceptic should therefore reject a claim if there is insufficient evidence to support it. However, they should still be open to the possibility that the claim could still be proved true in the future if further evidence is found.

I have used this statement to define the stance I take when I tell people I am an atheist. I reject the notion of a deity on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, but I keep my mind open to the possibility that one may exist if sufficient supporting evidence were found in the future. Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and it is important to demand such.

To believe a testable, scientific claim when there is no supporting scientific evidence is irrational.

This is the beauty of science. That it has the capacity to correct the truths that it finds and can change the conclusions that it is able to draw. Far from being a weakness or a flaw, this is one of its greatest strengths! Any system or process for determining truth that is rigid is fundamentally flawed! As our knowledge grows and changes, so should the conclusions we draw from it.

By applying a sceptical mindset in our quest for the truths we are searching for, we can at least be sure that the knowledge we have gained is valid.

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